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Merlino's back story as big as its food

★★★

Merlino's strikes me as the kind of restaurant that doesn't know how to be quiet. Just before Christmas, holiday music was blaring when the Bee Gees and Stevie Wonder weren't. There wasn't a spot left at the 30-seat bar, where well-dressed women of a certain age sipped cocktails and picked at pasta. As one man left the restaurant, he handed $20 bills to every staff member. Christmas gifts, I suppose.

There was no sign of Joey Merlino, the convicted Philadelphia mob boss who is the restaurant's namesake. Merlino's owners seem careful when they talk about Joey Merlino. He's an employee, a sometimes maitre d', not an owner. According to media reports, Merlino may be headed to federal prison this month to serve a four-month sentence for violating terms of his supervised release after serving time on a 2001 racketeering conviction. The restaurant took his name because millionaire businessman backer Stanley Stein is a fan of Merlino's mother Rita's cooking.

Nothing like a little mafia cachet.

Meantime, there are some familiar faces at Merlino's. Chef Angelo Morinelli once operated Cucina D'Angelo in Boca's Town Center Circle and then did a short stint at Tanzy at Mizner Park. Manager and partner John Wyner spent seven years as manager of Abe and Louie's steakhouse in Boca. And he's assembled a mostly solid group of well-seasoned wait staff.

With some fine tuning, Merlino's could be Boca's next big Italian restaurant, with its combination of Old World and modern Italian. Not that there aren't already enough Italian restaurants in this town.

Pan fried meatballs and sausage ($16) are a delicious start. The beef in the meatballs is finely ground, resulting in an unusually delicately textured sphere of beef. The accompanying broccoli rabe, sautéed with garlic and olive oil, is still nicely crunchy. It's all garnished with a bit of shaved parmesan cheese. Grilled lamb chops with olive oil and rosemary ($18) are also a nice meaty start. The only way to enjoy every bite is to pick them up.

And if you go to Merlino's, you've got to eat Clams Pavarotti ($18), six clams baked with shrimp, lump crabmeat and béchamel cream sauce. Wow!

From the Insalate section of the menu, roasted beet salad ($12) is a generous plate of earthy beets served over a bed of arugula with lemony dressing and a scattering of goat cheese. I love how radicchio sweetens when sautéed or grilled, but the sautéed radicchio ($18) was overwrought. The chef adds balsamic, bacon and jumbo lump crab meat, which ends up tasting like some clean-out-the-fridge concoction.

Three of us decided to share a pasta course and it was difficult to agree on which one. The list of preparations includes such classics as spaghetti carbonara ($21), pappardelle Bolognese ($22) and rigatoni Sunday gravy ($26). But it was fiocchi quattro formaggi ($23) that caught our eye. Purses of pasta are stuffed with cheese and served in a four cheese sauce made up of blue cheese, goat cheese, mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Like those clams, it's among the best thing served at Merlino's

A seafood special the night we dined was divine Crab crusted Chilean sea bass ($38) over sautéed spinach with lobster beurre blanc.

Meat dishes were less successful. The 16-ounce Colorado lamb shank ($38) in Barolo reduction was overcooked. The edges of the shank were dry and crispy instead of fall-apart tender. I also suggest Merlino's look for a new veal source. The scaloppini in Veal South Philly ($32) was tough as an overcooked pork chop. I ate the accompanying sausage, onions, mushrooms, peppers and garlic instead.

I found it odd that our waiter didn't blink at the pile of veal left on my plate. But service is uneven at Merlino's. There was too long a pause between courses. Water glasses were slow to be refilled. Plates were removed only when we asked. There are bus boys on the floor, but they don't seem to know what to do. The only time the wait staff works cooperatively is when food is delivered. I'm confident these service issues will be overcome

For dessert, there's tiramisu ($12), a chef Morinelli classic that doesn't overdo the boozy creaminess of some versions. Pizzelle ice cream sandwich ($14) starts with the house made anise-flavored cookies known as pizzelle. They hold oversized scoops of gelato and whipped cream that sit in a flurry of caramel.

The restaurant sits in a nice corner spot just east of Federal Highway in downtown Boca that some may know from its time as Capri or Segreto. It's a piece of Boca real estate that deserves a good restaurant. Merlino's might be it.

Merlino's

39 SE First Ave., Boca Raton

561-756-8437; MerlinosBoca.com

Cuisine: Italian American

Cost: Expensive-very expensive

Hours: Dinner daily, lunch coming in 2015

Reservations: Suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Noisy

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: High chairs, boosters, menu

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Complimentary valet

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.


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